It weighs just a few grams but a cotton letter C can either straighten a back or bend it.
You might consider that when appraising the play of 19-year-old Leafs prospect Carter Verhaeghe, a left-hand-shooting centreman wrapping up his final year of junior for the Niagara IceDogs.
Verhaeghe, from Waterdown, Ont., just north of Hamilton, delivered a team-leading 82 points (33-49 with 38 PIMs and a plus 21) for the IceDogs, who carried a 37-22-2-2 regular-season record into their first-round playoff series with the Ottawa 67s.
The IceDogs plummeted in the campaign’s earliest days when veteran Luke Mercer was lost to a season-ending injury. A hand injury suffered by scoring winger Brendan Perlini at the Phoenix Coyotes training camp scuttled the team’s offence. They won just two of their first 13 games and Verhaeghe, the team’s most accomplished offensive player, garnered nine points and a minus-three.
Verhaeghe isn’t a stand-alone talent. At six-one and 185 pounds, he has neither overwhelming size nor premium skating ability. What he does have, in abundance, is the ability to operate beautifully on the game’s margins, see the ice and leave his imprints all over the boxscore.
“Carter has that great gift to be able to slow the game down,” said IceDogs coach and GM Marty Williamson. “He really doesn’t get hit a lot and he plays very well in traffic. You need that extra second of patience to let the game come to you. That’s what Carter brings and he brings it to you every night.”
“Trying to do it all by myself really doesn’t work for me,” Verhaeghe said. “I’m not really that kind of player and I was seeing the other team’s best defence pair a lot.”
Five of the IceDogs first seven losses were by a goal. Verhaeghe still got his points and Perlini came back but the IceDogs lugged a losing record into the New Year.
Williamson landed Josh Ho-Sang at midseason to boost the team’s scoring issues but the club was still without a central pillar in January. Mercer’s role hadn’t been filled.
“Everyone was kind of pushing me toward choosing more of an energy, yeller-screamer kind of guy,” Williamson said. “But Carter was the steadying influence right from Day 1. He stayed level-headed and kept believing that this team was going to be good. He deserved the C.”
The captaincy did not make Verhaeghe a more productive offensive player. In fact, his offensive dipped marginally from 1.31 points per game before the letter to 1.23 after.
But here is the stat to take away.
Before Verhaeghe donned the C, Jan. 11, the IceDogs had won 16 games and lost 23.
After the appointment the team won 21 of 29 games. Verhaeghe continued to improve as a player and, more importantly for Leaf fans, as a leader.
“I thought he elevated his game,” Williamson said. “He was thrilled by the C. It was amazing to see the little jump in his stride that came when he got the letter.”
“What I learned this year is that hockey can be very, very difficult,” Verhaeghe said, “but you have to just keep driving through. That’s really all you can do: enjoy the good times when they come and keep fighting through the bad.”
The Leafs grabbed Verhaeghe in the third round, 82nd overall in the 2013 draft in New Jersey. Verhaeghe grew up a Leafs fan whose fondest possession was a Mats Sundin jersey.
“I loved to watch him and loved the game,” he said. “He was a big influence on why I played hockey. Obviously to be chosen by your hometown team and by the team whose captain was your favorite player was unbelievably exciting.”
The IceDogs were stunned when Verhaeghe’s lack of breakaway speed left him unclaimed in the second round of the OHL draft. He was still on the board in New Jersey for essentially the same reason.
Verhaeghe worked with Leafs skating coach Barb Underhill to hone his stride and has substantially improved his speed.
“I feel like I am a lot faster. I am using my speed more to create offence and I think I can be pretty responsible defensively,” he said.
The Marlies have 12 games left to play with more to come if they can close out the regular season on a roll. Verhaeghe played two regular season AHL games last year and then practiced with the club as it advanced into the third round. He is eligible for call-up when the IceDogs are eliminated and will be skating full-time for the Marlies next year.
For now, there is the first round series with Ottawa and a post-season that comes with the IceDogs playing their best hockey.
“It’s going to be a fun playoff,” he said. “We are feeling really good about ourselves. I think we can compete with anyone.”